Scorsese is sometimes accused of misogyny, but just as his use of violence reflects the shadow process of his characters (rather than a morbid fascination with barbarity on the director’s behalf), so his female characters and the attitude toward them mirror the anima process, the emotional state of his male characters, which is often unhealthy and infantile. Just like the antagonist often represents the materialized shadow, so Scorsese’s female characters frequently represent the materialized anima, and Scorsese’s women are generally more intelligent, sympathetic and independent than his men.
In the final analysis “the projection can only be dissolved,” Jung says, “when a son sees that in the realm of his psyche there is an image not only of the mother but of the daughter, the sister, the beloved, the heavenly goddess.” Newland in The Age of Innocence chooses the immature May over Ellen, the independent adult who is his equal. Paul Hackett is chased through Lower Manhattan by a whole pack of unruly women in After Hours. The philandering of Howard Hughes in The Aviator reaches epic proportions. The central character of Shutter Island sacrifices his sanity, indeed his very identity, rather than face the true nature of his wife and their relationship. Only in Bringing Out the Dead and Gangs of New York is harmony achieved at the end between the wounded male ego and the inner feminine power of the unconscious as well as the outer feminine aspect of a real woman.
Wharton’s novel is, in fact, a perfectly logical choice for Scorsese, and there are innumerable reasons it would appeal to him. Underneath the polished surface, the central themes of the book are similar to the recurring concerns in Scorsese’s films, and like so many of these, it states explicitly and repeatedly that it deals with “the inner devils.” Scorsese was fascinated by Wharton’s use of language, much of which is preserved in the film, spoken by a slightly ironic, omniscient voice-over narrator (Joanne Woodward). According to Jay Cocks, Scorsese was so intent on keeping Wharton’s wit and “sculpted perfection” that he “timed camera moves to the narration with hairsbreadth accuracy,” thus making language and voice-over narration exquisitely filmic narration, and attributing to to Wharton’s cadences the same all-important rhythmic function that he has always attributed to music.
Resonating with Scorsese’s metaphorical use of architectural elements, Edith Wharton once described the mind of a woman as a “great house full of rooms.” There are the rooms, Wharton says, where family and other people come and go on a daily basis, “But beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes. The fact that Scorsese and screenwriter Jay Cocks chose to quote this intensely sad passage at the beginning of their book on the making of The Age of Innocence indicates that they, too, see it as an important connection between the works of Edith Wharton and those of Martin Scorsese. I cannot think of a fictional character who better fits Wharton’s description of the lonely inner space that nobody ever visits than the Countess Olenska, and she is indeed one of the central links between this and Scorsese’s other films.
Preposterous though it may sound, The Age of Innocence is closely connected with Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Casino and especially Cape Fear. Like Scorsese’s films on organized crime, The Age of Innocence concerns a “tribe” that lives by its own rules and rituals, an extended unit that calls itself a family. Through obscure conventions, unwritten rules and “arbitrary signs,” this family controls and terrorizes entire neighborhoods of New York, and like a live organism, it expels or kills off any foreign body: When collectively everyone decides to snub the Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), it is referred to by the narrator as an “eradication.” “The savagery of this ritual,” says Thelma Schoonmaker, is “perhaps more savage than the ritual [Scorsese] grew up in.” Scorsese himself has said that over the years he has created a lot of violent and brutal characters, but that those in The Age of Innocence are the most brutal of them all.